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Expert check-up: a GP’s notes on what you can do to stay well

16 May 2019

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Life is busy… we could all do a little better at looking after ourselves. What are the best things you can do to stay well and keep your mental and physical health in check? For a little expert advice, we caught up with GP Nikki Retford. 

Nikki, when someone walks into your office and you think ‘wow they are really taking good care of themselves’ what sorts of things are they doing?

Actually, appearances can be deceiving – sometimes people put a lot of effort into their physical appearance but aren’t coping well mentally. For example, I see a lot of people who are highly anxious. For me as a doctor, it usually takes the first five minutes of conversation to understand where a person is at in terms of self-care. As a general rule, if someone makes good eye contact, seems relaxed and content, and has a sense of confidence in their appearance – those are good signs!

What are some things we should all be doing to look after ourselves physically?

There are so many things. Eating a balanced diet with regular meals is important, as are regular exercise and a good night’s sleep. As a GP I’d also remind people to think about their bodies and any changes they’ve noticed – for example, do you have any new moles, if you’re a woman are you examining your breasts for lumps or changes at least once a month, if you’re a man are you checking your testicles for lumps, bumps swelling or changes? Are you up-to-date with immunisations? It’s a good idea to get a flu jab at the beginning of winter – actual flu makes people really, really sick and it’s a particular worry for babies, older people and anyone who is immune supressed. 

What steps would you recommend everyone take to look after themselves mentally? 

Balancing stress is key! While some stress can be healthy, the balance has to be right. I often refer to a person’s ‘battery running flat’ – when a person feels like they are coping (or just hanging in there) day-to-day.  Life is a marathon, not a sprint and it’s important to enjoy the journey. I often suggest that patients reflect on whether what they are currently doing is sustainable in the longer term and if not to think about how to make changes. 

Have you seen anything that works particularly well to reduce stress?

Exercise, eating well, taking regular holidays/breaks, and making time to do the things you enjoy on a regular basis are all effective ways of reducing stress. Work is important, but a good work-life balance is vital.

Are there warning signs in terms of our mental health? When should we ask for help? 

If you feel like you’re getting irritable with your loved ones or aren’t coping well with things that you would usually manage, those can be signs that you may need help. Popping in for a chat with your GP and getting it off your chest can be a great first step. Your GP can then talk you through options in terms of what to do next, whether that’s a referral to a psychologist, medical options or arranging another appointment to review where you’re at with your GP.

Is an annual GP check-up something you’d advocate? 

Absolutely! Even though you may not feel unwell or as though you particularly need anything, it is important to make your health a priority once a year and have a check-up. It is surprising what comes up! Blood tests aren’t always required, but a chat about your personal health targets, as well as disease prevention and your current health status is very valuable.

If there was just one thing you could convince everyone in New Zealand to do to look after their health what would it be?

Stress management is a big one – don’t let your battery run flat! You also can’t ignore genetics, so an annual check-up is important as well as monitoring for health issues before they progress.

This is the final article in a three-part series of self-care tips from healthcare experts. For parts one and two, read dietitian Alice Gormack and counsellor Erin Nolan’s ideas for staying mentally and physically well.

Nikki Retford

About Nikki

Nikki Retford is an Auckland-based doctor who provides general practitioner services.

Image credit: photo by Arvin Chingcuangco on Unsplash.

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